Thursday, May 07, 2020

Will we forget who are essential?

Many workers now designated “essential” make less than average U.S. wages. There’s nothing remotely essential about astronomically paid top financiers or, say, sports stars. 

Take retail sales workers keeping food on shelves with little hope of safely distancing themselves from colleagues or customers. Their average pay is under $28,000 a year nationally, or around $13 an hour. That’s barely more than the Department of Health and Human Services’ poverty guideline for a household of four, and only around half the national average wage, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Healthcare practitioners at least make a decent $84,000 a year on average, over $40 per hour. That’s skewed by doctors and dentists, both near $200,000, but the typical registered nurse, for example, also does fine. Yet ambulance drivers and attendants, not in the same BLS category, pull in under $30,000 on average, or less than $15 an hour. Emergency medical technicians do only slightly better. 

As in the UK and elsewhere, home health aides are financially forgotten – and heavily exposed to Covid-19. They make less than retail workers on average, says the BLS, as do drivers for services like Uber, according to Economic Policy Institute estimates. Bus drivers and postal workers get closer to the national average. 

The hourly pay floor in New York City is $15. Enforcing that nationally would fatten the wallets of a dozen of the roughly 40 BLS categories identified as “essential” – though that would require more than doubling the laughable $7.25 federal minimum wage, a long-term victim of legislative dithering. Whether lawmakers take such things seriously will depend on how quickly their lockdown memories fade.

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